Sometimes, bands release one final album before breaking up. Other times, a group returns to recording together after such a hiatus, which is either a regaining of lost chemistry or just completely forced.
The Civil Wars did things a little differently.
The country/folk duo (John Paul White and Joy Williams) had become one of music’s rising stars, with an acclaimed debut album–2011’s Barton Hollow–and endorsements from the likes of Adele and Taylor Swift. The group wound up accepting two GRAMMYs a year after the album’s release (Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo/Group Performance). They also landed a spot on the Hunger Games soundtrack, collaborating on the song “Safe and Sound” with none other than Swift herself. The song wound up winning another GRAMMY earlier this year.
When the two took the stage during that third GRAMMY victory (as part of the pre-telecast awards ceremony), video footage of their acceptance speech finds White and Williams together, yet separate. Each takes their turn at the microphone, and Williams and White approach T-Bone Burnett, the song’s producer, hugging him. But for a duo that owes their success to performing together, there’s not a word spoken between the two. They stand with either Burnett or Swift separating them. There’s not even a mention of the other in their speeches.
Those in the know might have wondered if both Williams and White were going to show up at all. That’s because, by this point, the Civil Wars were on hiatus. In a statement released last November, the two explained the split by citing only “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” One might have thought the Civil Wars a blip on the radar, making its final in-person appearance before disappearing forever.
Which is why it was such a surprise when, this past May, the band announced it was putting out a new record, titled simply The Civil Wars. The cover they revealed was ominous, too — a black-and-white photo of smoke billowing from an unknown source, while one side art of the cover was untouched, the soothing white to the swirling grey.
Speculation came immediately. When was the album written? How? Was this a return from hiatus? Were they even on speaking terms? They must be, if they’re putting out a new album… right?
The Civil Wars finally dropped this week, and in more ways than one it’s an ode to that discord, unease and unknown. It was regarded as a record that could potentially explain the strife that came between White and Williams, to help better understand why the duo had split. Williams had been vague about it in the few interviews she’d given, and White wasn’t talking at all.
“It was similar in terms of the actual recording process,” Williams recently told InStyle. “We wrote the songs together, recorded them in the same room, much like the previous project. This time around we wanted to really profess a sound sonically and lyrically and I think we did that despite the tension between us. The tension is very much in that sonically regarding harmony.”